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Climate change

Is there hope for indigenous Alaskans?


For more than 2,000 years, the Yupik people have hunted and fished in the icy wilds of Alaska’s western coast, digging holes through the frozen sea to catch salmon and stickleback and communicating to one another in an ancient lexicon that includes dozens of ways to describe ice. Passed down from generation to generation, this linguistic adaptation has helped the Yupik to navigate safely as hunters, using specific terminology to describe the ice’s thickness and reliability. But with the advance of climate change, common Yupik words such as tagneghneq — used to describe dark, dense ice — are becoming obsolete as Alaska’s melting permafrost turns the once solid landscape into a mushy, sodden waste.

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Recent scientific data confirm that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as any other place on the planet, with the average winter temperature having risen 6.3 degrees Celsius over the past 50 years. Alaska’s soaring temperatures are caused by a perfect storm of confluence. When solar radiation hits snow and ice, most of it is reflected back into space. But as warming global temperatures encourage ice to melt, the exposed land absorbs the radiation, prompting yet more ice to melt. Now the people of Alaska — 85 percent of whom live along the coast — are among the first Americans to feel the effects of climate change as the ground beneath them melts and gives way.

Life in Alaska is defined by the cold, by the land, and by the people’s relationship to the sea. To fish and to hunt is to live and breathe, and the rapid melting of the ice is causing many indigenous Alaskans to question their cultural identity. Nobody knows this crisis more viscerally than Patricia Cochran, who has been working with communities across Alaska and the Arctic for 30 years to help them deal with the ravages of climate change. Cochran is executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, but she is also a native Alaskan and Inupiat, born and raised in the coastal town of Nome. Cochran grew up in a traditional Inupiat home, setting out across the tundra for fish camp every year and scrambling along the rocky coast with her siblings in the late-summer months, foraging for berries and herbs.

“It has taken science a very long time to catch up to what our communities have been saying for decades,” says Cochran. “For at least the last 40 or 50 years, our communities have noticed the subtlest of changes happening in the environment around them. We were seeing the signs of climate change long before researchers and scientists started using those words. Climate change is more than just a discussion for us. It is a reality. It is something that we live with and face every single day — and have for decades.”

As a child growing up in Nome, Cochran remembers the snow lying thick on the ground most of the year, and the sea — a single block of ice — stretching far toward the horizon late into the summer months. The winters were long and brutal, the summers exceedingly brief.

But over time, the winters began to arrive later and to rush prematurely into spring. Now, when Cochran visits her childhood home, the vast expanse of ice is gone, replaced by an open, glistening sea. “We have had to build a seawall in Nome because the sea ice that used to sit in front of our villages is no longer there,” she says. “That ice used to keep us safe. We have had so much rain that our fish will not dry on our fish racks. We have had such warm weather throughout the summer that berries have ripened twice in the season. Most worrying, the changing ice conditions have caused extreme erosion, flooding, and permafrost degradation across the entire community.”

Permafrost, the permanently frozen sublayer of soil that has anchored Alaska for thousands of years, provides a foundation for homes, schools, and roads, and it keeps the rising sea at bay. But mounting temperatures throughout the Arctic are causing this prehistoric underpinning to melt, turning the soil soggy and releasing more carbon dioxide into the air. As the cycle continues and the warming earth buckles and bends, the houses of Alaska’s indigenous people topple into the sea. As the dwindling permafrost exposes the soil and the offshore ice that normally buffers the villages from storms decreases, the sea advances, eating away at the land. In the late summer, increasingly fierce storms, the results of climatic shifts, batter the coast, eroding the topsoil until it crumbles into the sea.

Photo courtesy of "Glacier Exit," a film by Raphael Rogers, Kristin Rogers, and Paul Rennick.

Combining scientific expertise with her innate traditional knowledge, Coch-ran works to help communities across Alaska that are relocating. For years, the tiny village of Shishmaref, located on a barrier island 5 miles from the Alaskan mainland north of the Bering Strait, has been steadily yielding its shores — and buildings — to the frigid sea. When residents voted in August 2016 to leave their land, it was estimated they would need about $200 million to relocate homes and infrastructure to the new site and to build new roads, utilities, schools, and a barge landing. It is a staggering amount for a community of just under 600 residents, against which the state has offered merely $8 million.

About 400 miles south, the even smaller village of Newtok has been sliding toward the Ninglick River for years by up to 70 feet a year. Residents decided to trade their coastal land for a more secure swath on a nearby island, at an estimated cost of $130 million. While villagers plan their new homes and infrastructure, they still need to live where they are, maintain their daily rhythms, keep their children in school, and continue their ancient way of life hunting for moose, seals, and fish. Some residents fear that their centuries-old culture and identity will suffer if they move. “For communities who have been there for thousands of years, it’s a difficult decision to leave everything,” says Cochran. “It’s not only the physical exhaustion, but the mental exhaustion and trauma that come along with all those things.”

Cochran is redoubling her efforts on what she and her organization can do to help indigenous Alaskans with community-based initiatives, research, and action. She frames climate change as a human rights issue, expanding the dialogue beyond emissions and mitigation to incorporate the language of justice and humanity. As a self-professed “elder in training,” she encourages young people to take part in her climate-justice journey, so that they too can learn the tools to live a sustainable life in their native communities.

“I see that as my most important responsibility and honor,” Cochran says, “to pass on that information and knowledge to the young people who must live with the disastrous situation that we have left them in.” Across the one- or two-room schools that dot the vast Alaskan coastline, new climate programs are being introduced to teach young children the myriad ways to talk about the weather — and to describe snow and ice — in their native languages. It is a way to keep endangered words such as tagneghneq alive, and to help those children navigate a safer future.

While she works to help indigenous people affected by climate change, Cochran takes inspiration from one of her own elders, her beloved mother, who passed away some years ago at the age of 96. As a child, Cochran’s mother watched as a flu epidemic wiped out her entire family except for her father. Bereft and traumatized, she was removed from her village when she was eight and sent to a boarding school, where she would remain until she was 18. “She lost her language, she lost her culture,” says Cochran, who remembers her mother as an eternal optimist and an indomitable spirit. “She fought the rest of her life to make sure that her eight children had what it would take to survive.”

Keeping her mother in mind gives Cochran the focus that she needs — and it helps imbue her message with hope. Knowing about her mother’s experience “really makes me understand that we can deal with anything,” she says. “We have always been resilient, adaptive, creative, amazing people, which has helped see us through the darkest of times in the past. That resilience, that spirit, will help us in the times yet to come.” 

• This story was adapted from "Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future" by Mary Robinson, with Caitríona Palmer (2018). Used by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Mary Robinson was president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and was a United Nations special envoy for climate change.